A 1935 Avions Voisin C25 Aérodyne with flamboyant coachwork and a fascinating past will go across the auction block on Aug. 18 at a Gooding & Company sale in Pebble Beach, Calif.
The car, chassis No. 50023, had been acquired in 1963 by Henry Browne de Kilmaine, a pioneering car collector who helped start the Circuit de la Sarthe museum at the track where the 24 Hours of Le Mans is held. The C25, then black with a tan interior, was displayed at the museum in 1963-2008, according to Gooding.
"But before that, we really don't know where the car was," David Gooding, the auction house's principal, said in an interview on Monday. "Mr. de Kilmaine, however, suggested he had information the car had originally been displayed by Voisin at the 1934 Paris auto show."
This much, however, is certain: since the museum years it has undergone a makeover as complete as if it were entering a witness protection program.
The C25's flashy coachwork, which included a novel retractable roof with four airliner-style portholes, was inspired by Gabriel Voisin's background in aviation; he spent the early part of his career designing and building some of the world's first airplanes.
If this C25 is indeed the Paris car -- and there seems to be no one claiming it is not -- it at some point lost the two-tone paint scheme seen in period photographs. And incredibly, it survived World War II, when many luxury cars vanished -- stolen, destroyed, vandalized or cannibalized.
"We have known of instances where cars were buried, hidden behind false walls, even disassembled and smuggled away in pieces," Mr. Gooding said. "We have no idea how this car survived, or in whose possession it was during all of those years."
But how did it come to be painted black? "We hope when we put these cars out there that we will hear from people who might know additional information and be able to help us fill in some of the blanks," Mr. Gooding said. "It has happened before."
After de Kilmaine died in 2008, his collection was sold off and the black Voisin ended up in England, according to the Le Mans museum. The new owner ordered a full restoration. It was painted midnight blue and gray, with a rococo blue interior using fabric from the mill that originally supplied Voisin. Mr. Gooding said the new motif was inspired by the Paris show car.
It now looks very much like the C25 that won Best of Show in 2011 at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance. That car is owned by Peter Mullin, a noted collector of French cars.
"I am not personally familiar with this car, but I knew of its existence," Mr. Mullin said in an e-mail. "These almost never come up for sale."
Locating a Voisin like this is like finding a lost Rembrandt, he offered.
Mr. Mullin is credited in recent years with raising consciousness and appreciation within the collector car fraternity for not only forgotten Voisins, but also for other French Art Deco designs, including those from Delahaye and Talbot-Lago. His collection includes 16 other Voisin automobiles.
Voisin's recognition as a featured marque at Pebble Beach in 2006 also helped to bring attention to the marque -- and increased the prices they brought. Before 2006, no Voisin had ever sold for more than $1 million, Mr. Mullin told The Los Angeles Times. The C25 in his collection might be worth $5 million or more today, he estimated.
Gooding has placed a presale estimate of $2 million to $3 million on No. 50023.
The 1934 Paris show was a showcase for other groundbreaking French offerings, including the Citroën Traction Avant and the Renault Aeroprofil.
Voisin was known for his exotic creations, but the C25 Aérodyne was the topper; it suggested the limitless artistic possibilities of automotive design, even though the extreme costs associated with bringing it to life probably helped to doom the company.
By 1934, the handwriting was really already on the wall for Voisin's somewhat quixotic dream of designing the world's most perfect automobile. Chronically underfinanced -- a condition worsened by the Depression -- Gabriel Voisin had already let go many of his top people. He was unable to upgrade his smoky 6-cylinder sleeve-valve engines.
But there was no scrimping on the design.
Voisin's cars employed construction methods, and lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium, developed for use in aviation. The company used airplane-style fender struts to reduce body flex, aerodynamic wheel covers and a fastback profile with an integrated trunk.
Evolved from the C24, the new Voisin was brimming with revolutionary curiosities -- a retracting sunroof, fold-down rear seats, a shortwave radio and even rudimentary turn signals.
According to Gooding, the C25's price of 88,000 francs -- as compared with 70,000 francs for a Bugatti Type 57 -- marked the C25 as a car intended for an elite clientele. Movie stars, politicians, artists and architects ordered them. In total, just 28 examples were built in 1934-37, of which no more than eight were fashioned with the extreme Aérodyne coachwork.
That wasn't enough production to sustain the company. Voisin tried to soldier on, despite the economic headwinds of the times.
Then, Voisin noted in his autobiography, "a certain Hitler unleashed the regrettable chain of events that French people are all too familiar with."
And so, Avions Voisin passed into history; decades would pass until the survivors would be rediscovered.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.